Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Nomad Goes to Paris

My mom is a child of a military family. Her parents, my Nana and Pop-Pop, hauled her and her four siblings around the world--each allowed a footlocker to carry their worldly belongings--setting up homes in whatever housing the US Air Force provided. If you catch her in the right mood, Nana will tell the story of falling in love with Pop-Pop in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, and eloping against her father's wishes; the first house Pop-pop built; the one--and greatly celebrated--tree on the Air Force base in Iceland; giving birth to my Aunt Linda in Germany (and consequently, subjecting the children to matching Lederhosen, which would later dress up innocent and unsuspecting grandchildren); lugging the wood, literally, up the side of a mountain to build their dream home in Twin Lakes, Colorado; fleeing to Arizona in their motor home, "The Clipper", when the Colorado winters got brutal.

Even after their five children had grown and started families of their own, Nana and Pop-Pop never settled. During my childhood, it seemed they were always in exotic locales: Mesa, Arizona . . . Parachute, Colorado . . . Shamokin, Pennsylvania. I spent a summer with them in one house, came back a couple years later to find they had moved to a different house mere blocks away. After move twenty-blahblahblah, my mom and her siblings stopped asking why and just showed up to help pack the U-haul.

I believe this nomadic tendency has seeped into our genetic code and is passed along like eye color and meaty thighs (which come in handy when lugging boxes between zip codes). I did not have one, I had many childhood homes. As a kid, I repeatedly heard phrases like:
"Let's take the scenic route!"
"It can't be that far to the top of that mountain, right?"
"All kids under age 10, get in the back of the truck and hold on!"
8-12 hour weekend road trips were a common occurrence, and a good night's sleep could always be had stretched out on the seat of my mom's old truck. Adventure was but a Conoco stop away (have CornNuts, will travel).

My Nomad Gene kicked in at 18, and I high-tailed it out of Billings, Montana and landed in Minnesota. I survived five of those wicked winters, earned a degree in European history, and gained a deep and abiding love for Garrison Keillor.

At 24, Chicago called to me and I answered (What can I say? I loves me a good winter). I truly feel I would've stayed in Chicago, worshiping at the altar of All Things Deep-Dish, if a pesky little predicament in Los Angeles hadn't reared it's ugly head.


At 26, I shipped all my belongings to the west coast (a place I never thought I would call home) to try my hand at co-habitation. Here I am almost four years later happily settled as a dog owner, upholder of the benefits of sunscreen, and a very defensive driver.

Well, almost settled . . .

D.R. and I had been living together for about three years. Things were comfortable. Things were routine. Things were . . . the exact opposite of nomadic. I suggested we move to a new apartment, but that was tossed when I admitted we'd be crazy to give up our cheap rent and awesome location. We went on day trips. We visited family during holidays. We changed around the living room. Still, that little nomad mentally popped up with a packed suitcase and good walking shoes to remind me that the world needed exploring, and the continental U.S. just wasn't cutting it anymore. I needed to cross an ocean. I needed to experience a different culture. I needed really amazing food (read: cheese).

I needed Europe.

Of course! Nana loved their time traveling around Europe; my mother gets that dreamy look when she remembers a trip she took to Florence; and my father and grandfather believed wholeheartedly that it was a great disservice to the self and society if one did not see foreign lands. For heaven's sake, I had a degree in European history! My alma mater would probably take the thing back if they found out I had only read books and written mediocre term papers on the place. So, really, I had to go to Europe. I had a job to do.

My 30th birthday was approaching, and I wanted to do it up right. I wasn't dreading 30. In fact, I feel I earned each of those years, and I wanted to celebrate my accomplishment.

I celebrated with Paris . . .

I was prepared to immediately love Paris. I was prepared for it to sweep me off my feet in one breezy crusty-bread-scented motion. But, as most of us can attest, when expectations are placed on love, things can get dicey.

D.R. and I decided that our first stop (duh) would be enjoying a beverage in one of the ubiquitous Parisian cafes. Paris is synonymous with cafes. What Paris is not synonymous with is the protocol of cafes for two adrenaline-fueled-overly-tired-awe-stricken-un-peu-de-Francais-speaking-Americans.

We passed the first cafe and D.R. asked, "Do we just go in?"
"I don't know," I said.
We continued walking, sure that the French I studied for four years would make a triumphant return to my memory and I would be able to ascertain exactly what we were to do. We passed a couple more cafes and rationalized that they looked quite empty for 5pm. Maybe they were getting ready to close? We didn't want to be an imposition.

We approached another cafe and craned our necks. I looked at D.R. and wondered, "Should we let them know we're here if we want to sit outside?"
"Ugh, I don't know.  What's with all these chalkboards?  Do we order from them, or ask for a menu?"
"I have no idea.  They're in French, and my translation skills are not cooperating."
Onward, to the next cafe which was sure to be the one. . .

An inviting smell wafted towards us and I knew pastries were in our midst. We peeked in the doorway of yet another cafe. D.R. asked, "Do we order at the bar, then take our coffee outside? Do they bring it to us? Is it cheaper to order at the bar?"
"Ugh, I really don't know."
Ya know, walking really is a very healthy practice . . .

Finally, I got fed up. I spotted our target, grabbed D.R.'s hand, straightened my brand new trench coat and sidled up to a cafe. I would love to tell you the name, but I was so nervous, all details failed to implant. I walked in and confidently said to the gentleman, "Deux, s'il vous plait!" With a cocked brow, he handed us two beverage menus.  I asked in broken (splintered, shattered, non-existent) French if we could sit outside and he nodded. (Of course we could!  What was he going to say?  "I'm sorry ma'am.  Unless you can properly conjugate the verb "parler", you are not allowed to sit outside.)

Looking back, I realize that our complete lack of know-how was actually expectations and anxiety -- typical for a first date. We let it get the best of us.  But Paris was supportive and kind, bolstering us with soft pastries, glorious cheese, and that golden sandy sugar that hovers for a moment on the surface before being swallowed up by the thick, frothy espresso below.

Wandering ancient streets with modern additions, our relationship grew.  We figured out what worked best for us (a lovely boulangerie up the road from our hotel that served warm savory croissants), and what did not (a late night stroll through the gray and sketchy 13th arrondisement. Skip it. I promise, there's nothing to see but a train station). We discovered that communication really is the key to a good relationship (even if it's just "merci" and "s'il vous plait", the French appreciate it).  We made mistakes (walking the enormous Versailles gardens in boots), and discovered hidden talents (the gardens! Oh, the gardens!). Paris shared its secrets with us and we respected its history.  Four glorious days together, and I assured Paris that it would always hold a special place in my heart because it was my first . . . and you never forget your first.

**written on May 14, 2010

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